Over the past decade, Northwestern sports fans have become accustomed to an annual rite of spring: the lacrosse team’s trek through the NCAA tournament. Even casual Wildcat fans are familiar with their story – a scrappy coach arrived in 2002 to build a program from scratch, quickly winning seven national championships over the past eight years. Kelly Amonte Hiller’s teams have shifted the focus of the lacrosse world away from the I-95 corridor, and programs are now being launched from coast to coast.
Though the story of the current team is well known, most NU fans are not familiar with the story of the original Northwestern lacrosse program, which existed from 1982 to 1992. Although still lagging behind many other team sports, lacrosse has gained a lot of exposure in the 21st century. Back in 1982, lacrosse was a virtual unknown in the Midwest. There was no Internet, and national media coverage was nonexistent. There was only one ESPN channel at the time, and its primary college focus was on men’s basketball. For most NU students, “Lacrosse” was just the name of a town in Wisconsin.
The task of building the program fell to head coach Cindy Timchal, who spent the previous three years as an assistant lacrosse and field hockey coach at Penn. Timchal was hired not only as NU’s Head lacrosse coach, but was also as an assistant coach for the NU field hockey program, since back in the early days of women’s college sports, it was not unusual for coaches to work multiple sports.
Budget issues also meant that there were no scholarships for recruiting. Therefore, Timchal employed grass roots recruiting methods to bring currently enrolled NU students to open tryouts. Much of the roster was comprised of NU field hockey players, some of whom had never played lacrosse at any level. Travel was also a problem. Many games were played on the East Coast, but the program could only afford bus travel.
One of Timchal’s recruits was Anne O’Shaughnessy, who was a sophomore on the inaugural 1982 squad. O’Shaughnessy learned about the new program via word of mouth, and decided to give it a shot. She had played high school lacrosse at Western Reserve Academy outside of Cleveland, one of the few high schools in the Midwest that had girls’ lacrosse at the time.
“I wasn’t recruited by any school to play lacrosse, let alone a D1 school,” she said. “For me it was super cool to play this sport that I loved.”
What the team lacked in skill and experience, it made up for in athleticism. Timchal emphasized conditioning during her era, helping the Cats beat more established squads. The team’s competitiveness was evident from its very first game in 1982, a one-goal loss to Trenton State College. TSC, which has since been renamed The College of New Jersey, was a lacrosse power at the time and went on to complete an undefeated regular season. Northwestern, meanwhile, went 8-3 in that first season — a remarkable achievement.
Success continued in 1983, as the Cats went 11-2 and qualified for the NCAA tournament in only their second year of existence. The 1984 season delivered another milestone: NU got its first NCAA tournament win, a 6-2 victory over New Hampshire. In Timchal’s first eight seasons, the team had a winning record every year and reached the NCAA tournament five times.
Despite the on-field success, the program never generated much of a fan base. The team played its home games in Dyche Stadium (now Ryan Field), a depressingly large venue for a team with a tiny following. Dyche Stadium had a primitive form of artificial turf at the time, which created problems for the players.
“Dyche Stadium was different,” O’Shaughnessy said. “I remember the ball bouncing hard and fast on that Astroturf. When it rolled or bounced you had to run like hell to chase it down.”
Unfamiliarity with the game, plus the distance from main campus kept student from attending games at Dyche. Media coverage was also sparse, limited primarily to the Daily Northwestern. The Internet was not yet invented, so there were no fan blogs or team website. Niche channels such as Big Ten Network and ESPNU were still decades away, so there was no TV coverage.
“I remember we didn't attract that many fans at all, but they were loyal,” O’Shaughnessy said. “None of my Midwest friends knew of lacrosse.”
By 1990, Timchal had taken the program as far as it could go under the circumstances. Financial problems at NU had already fueled conjecture that the program would be cut. Seeking a chance to build a national champion, she left NU to become the head coach at Maryland. The Terrapins already had lacrosse pedigree, with two national championships to their credit. In addition, the Maryland job offered the opportunity to award scholarships. After two losing seasons without Timchal, NU’s program disbanded due to financial reasons after the 1992 season.
Timchal built a major powerhouse at Maryland, winning seven consecutive national championships from 1995 through 2001. Her most decorated player during those years was four-time All American and two-time Player of the Year Kelly Amonte. Upon graduation, Amonte spent four years as an assistant coach at Brown, UMass and Boston U.
Fate brought the story full circle in 2001, when NU decided to reinstate lacrosse and named Amonte Hiller head coach. The NU administration was able to give Amonte Hiller benefits not available to Timchal nearly 20 years earlier. The “new” program had a full complement of 12 scholarships, air travel and much improved facilities. In addition, the sport had become better known in the Midwest and particularly the Chicago suburbs, due in part to the Internet and to the growing number of cable sports channels.
In the early days of the new program, Amonte Hiller employed many of the same techniques used by Timchal in the 1980s. Her early teams lacked blue-chip prospects, so she emphasized athleticism and toughness in recruiting as a means to offset experience and skill. The program quickly reached phenomenal heights, resulting in the annual rite of spring enjoyed by Wildcat fans today.